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8 June 2018 Speech


I would like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation as the Traditional Owners of the land that we are on today, and pay my respect to their Elders past and present.

Thank you all for being here this morning, it's a hard time of year to be up early, and even harder when the first wave of flu season starts to hit, so it's great to see you all. Of course, CSIRO has done its bit by developing the original Relenza flu drugs, but as I'll discuss today, our role in protecting and improving your health is far broader than that.

So the question for today: can Australia be the healthiest country in the world? Without question, it's a moonshot – it will take lots of different parties working together in bold and innovative ways – but moonshots are nothing new for CSIRO, and really, nothing new for Australia.

In fact, you might know CSIRO and Australia played a pretty critical role in the original moonshot – with those first images from Apollo 11 being beamed to CSIRO radioastronomy facilities in Canberra and Parkes back in July of 1969.

So to consider our chances of this new moonshot, of becoming the healthiest country in the world, today I'd like to share a little of our health history, a little of our health future, and a little personal insight into why I think Australia can deliver.


When we look back through Australia's history, the seeds of healthy innovation were planted by our earliest people. For example, Aboriginal people living in far north Queensland used to soak, scrape and cook otherwise toxic seeds like black beans to make them a safe and nutritious part of their diet.

For the past 100 years or so, CSIRO has played an important role in continuing that mission.

In the 1920s, CSIRO scientists were hard at work on two very different crops. In Griffith, NSW, scientists were experimenting with orchards at the Commonwealth Citrus Research Station, testing the effectiveness of soil and fertiliser types, different bud selection methods, and irrigation strategies. In CSIRO's 1927 Annual Report, the team described the purpose of their work with clear customer focus:

"…it is essential for Australia to be able to place the highest grade standard fruit on foreign markets if it is to compete successfully with other countries".

Given a trip from Sydney to Plymouth by the fastest ship available still took over three month, perhaps growing fruit for export was a bit of a moonshot then.

The other fruit crop CSIRO was very concerned with was the prickly pear. A crop imported to Australia in an ill-fated effort to harvest the red-coloured dye of the cochineal beetle it attracts. Unfortunately, the fruit-bearing cactus flourished to become a noxious weed.

By the mid-1920s, it had taken over more than 60 million acres of land, thwarting crops and starving livestock.

In partnership with the NSW and QLD governments – the co-operation notable as we start State of Origin season this week – CSIRO scientists carefully experimented with a range of insects to eat the prickly pear with varied success – but like good entrepreneurs they treated these early failures as learnings.

Finally, larvae from the Argentinian moth were released, and within 10 years, the once-dense fields of prickly pear lay rotting, or had vanished completely.

This is one of the few large scale environmental interventions of the western world that actually worked, and set the stage for curing the rabbit plague, the fly plague, disease resistant wheat – in all five major interventions that made life better in Australia.

I wanted to start today by talking about our long Australian connection with the land and its produce because of its enduring connection to our health, even all these centuries later. Not only do we know more than ever about the importance of our diet, even down to personalising it for our genes, but the most sophisticated models of health today look at every element of our environment to understand a holistic picture of disease.

Emerging health breakthroughs

So let me now talk about what our work in health innovation looks like today and into the future. It may surprise you to see how some of the work we did a century ago is still relevant to a healthier Australia, and world, today.

Precision Health

A few years ago we recognised the rising importance of a cross-disciplinary approach to a new era of health challenges and opportunities, some of which I'll discuss this morning. So we brought together several hundred of our scientists across a range of specialisations to form a new Health and Biosecurity team.

The internal change reflects the global movement towards a "One Health" approach to managing biosecurity. It came from the epiphany that in the past 100 years, CSIRO has created the largest genetics group in the country, and we made major environmental interventions to make life better, but this had all been around plants and animals and water. However, these are also the sources of modern disease – major pandemics don’t discriminate between humans and animals, so it was time for us to step up again to the newest challenge facing Australia.

We also announced a new program of investment at CSIRO into areas of cutting-edge research that we believe have the power to transform our existing industries, and invent new ones. We call them Future Science Platforms, and under this program we're pushing new boundaries in Precision Health.

Precision Health harnesses the power of big data – including clinical, laboratory, and genetic data – to generate new insights and improved treatments for individuals.

It's a rapidly accelerating field, powered by advances in biosciences like gene sequencing, understanding the interactions at the microbiome level of our bodies, and seeing differences in how genes are expressed through emerging work in the field of epigenetics.

Precision Health means we can shift our emphasis from treating illness towards keeping people healthy by better predicting, and delaying, the onset of chronic disease.

It means we can adopt a wider view of health, beyond the 10 percent that is driven by clinical care, to include other key influencers of health, like what our genes and gut microbiome say about us, considered along with environmental, behavioural and social factors.

And we can capture, integrate and analyse big data sets to build personal health profiles, moving from a 'one-sized-fits all' approach to more effective, personalised solutions.

These are the big trends in Precision Health more broadly. At CSIRO, we're specifically working on developing an integrated platform that can be used to proactively manage your health throughout the course of your life – designed literally for a customer of one, you. It will feature highly tailored food, nutrition and lifestyle interventions, reflecting community expectations and attitudes, and building on programs and developments already underway in the medical field.

Another specific project CSIRO is focused on is developing a way to monitor, in real time, complex processes in the human body that can be the early warning signs of injury or disease.

We're working on the next generation of wearable sensors that could have a huge impact on health and wellbeing in the future.

One of the first goals we're working towards is the development of a small, unobtrusive sensor that looks like this (gold wearable prop) that people with diabetes can wear to monitor their individual glucose levels.

This tech could potentially also be used by people at high risk of developing diabetes, to help them regulate their diet and lifestyle and make real changes to manage, or even avoid, the disease.

And on the topic of wearables, what about customising replacement body parts? Our advanced manufacturing teams have been supporting Australia's booming medtech sector, and in the past few years we've partnered with an Aussie medical start-up, Anatomics, to 3D-print body parts that have saved the lives of patients around the world.

For example, we printed a titanium sternum just like this (sternum prop) to save the life of a 20-year-old New York patient, Penelope Heller, who had been diagnosed with cancer three years earlier.

Better food

So Precision Health can help us more accurately personalise interventions, but what do those interventions look like? I mentioned earlier that our crops have played a critical role in our research for decades, from strengthening our citrus crops to demolishing the invasive prickly pear.

Today a component of our agricultural research is improving the health credentials of our crops in ways the team monitoring their orchards in Griffith could never have imagined.

Never mind exporting Australian oranges, now we can add so much unique and innovative value to our food that we can actually re-sell it to the countries who used to produce the world's best.

You might already be familiar with our BarleyMAX grain, a CSIRO-developed wholegrain with boosted levels of fibre and resistant starch that can help combat cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer. It's already in supermarkets across the country, but you might not have realised it was created by your national science agency.

If you're headed to Germany for Oktoberfest later this year, see if you can pick up a bottle of this (kebari prop). This Pionier beer is brewed from a new CSIRO-developed barley called Kebari, officially recognised by the World Health Organisation as gluten-free.

Of course, you should only enjoy it in moderation to really be a healthy nation! Last year, we sold it to the world's connoisseurs of beer, Germany, to brew gluten-free beer. We're hoping that before long we'll have a similar product available in Australia.

If you're headed to the US and you're craving a bagel, or a pretzel, or a pizza, or anything else with a wheat base, you can do your health a favour and pick one up made with CSIRO-developed high amylose wheat. This wheat has extra high levels of resistant starch, helping to protect against bowel cancer and Type 2 diabetes. Late last year we started commercialising this healthier grain in the US to combat the world's worst obesity problem.

And this week, you might have heard about our latest value-added food product, a powder made from broccoli you can add to food products for extra veggie goodness, including brewing a broccoli latte.

In addition to being great for your health, the powder is made from parts of the broccoli that usually don't make it to the supermarket, so we're tackling food waste as well as nutrition.

These are just the entrée from CSIRO's "science delicatessen" of high-value foods we're developing with our industry partners. As well as boosting the health of Australians, we identified these high-value foods as a strategic advantage for our nation's food and agribusiness sector, so we've stepped up our research in this field to grow our national economy alongside our national health outcomes.

But it's not just our big agricultural partners benefitting, there are small and medium businesses growing in this sector as well. You might have picked up a bottle of Preshafruit fruit juice on your way in.

The juice is manufactured by a small Victorian company called Preshafood, who worked with CSIRO to develop premium fruit juices that are pasteurised using high pressure processing (HPP) instead of heat.

The technology has the potential to extend the shelf-life of chilled perishable products and provide improved safety, taste, texture, quality, fresh-like characteristics and nutritional value, without having to use chemical preservatives.

The company has gone from starting life in our world-class, pilot plant in Werribee to recently expanding their investment in HPP technology and becoming the largest HPP operation in Australia, creating new jobs and growing sales both in Australia and in export markets, including a growth curve through its exports to Asia.

It's a long way from testing soil and irrigation to ensure our orange exports were competitive!

Integrated opportunities

While we're opening up new export opportunities with high-value foods, increased global transport is creating new threats to our health and biosecurity. As I mentioned earlier, the most sophisticated models of health now acknowledge that human, animal and ecosystem health are inextricably linked. It's a model called One Health.

As human populations have expanded, agriculture has intensified, and global movement increases, over the past 30 years we've seen an increase in emerging infectious diseases, with more than 70 per cent of them emerging first in animals and then being passed to humans through various routes.

It means that the value of bringing a diverse range of expertise to any given challenge is now essential to seeing all sides of a threat, which is why we created the new Health and Biosecurity Team I mentioned earlier.

Hopefully as part of the Vivid Sydney festival, you've had a chance to see the CSIRO light installation on George Street, just around the corner from here, in The Rocks. If you have, you will have seen the beautiful – but dangerous – images of Hendra, Ebola, Zika, and Influenza viruses, displayed in stunning detail.

Our work on these biosecurity threats takes place at our Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, or as we think of it now, the All Australian Health Laboratory. Originally built as an animal biosecurity facility, AAHL is one of only six high-containment animal research centres in the world, working with national and international human and animal health organisations as part of a global One Health network.

In recent years AAHL has expanded its research from protection of our livestock, to now work across human and animal infectious diseases. In the past few years, our teams have contributed to global efforts to understand – and fight – outbreaks, as well as bolstering Australia's defences against new emerging threats.

It's remarkable to think in a few short decades, CSIRO has evolved from the inventor of Aerogard to keep mosquitoes from biting you, to now bio-engineer both the mosquito and the viruses, like Zika and Malaria.

So we're on the front foot in protecting against, and preparing for, outbreaks, but we're also applying a cross-disciplinary approach to improve our health services.

Bringing together medical and digital, we've developed science to help hospitals predict how many patients will arrive in emergency, their medical needs and how many will be admitted or discharged. The Patient Admission and Prediction Tool, or PAPT, tool draws on a hospital's historical data to provide an accurate prediction. It's currently being used by more than 30 Queensland hospitals, and is on trial in Victoria.

We can also transform the rehabilitation experience for patients, including an app we developed for knee surgery recovery and another one for cardiac recovery. Both alleviate pressure on our hospitals and health professionals, while increasing patient comfort by being able to track and maintain their recovery from home.

And we can connect our most remote citizens to health specialists in our cities through platforms like Coviu. Coviu is a new telehealth start-up that recently emerged from CSIRO-incubated technology, was accelerated through our national ON program, which takes science off the benchtop, through beta, and to buyer, and then just last month picked up investment from the CSIRO Innovation Fund.

Coviu is a cloud-based healthcare experience that makes augmented reality consultations with a clinician possible online with easy, one-click video communications combined with intelligent diagnostic and workflow tools.

So we can see the impact of the digital revolution not just in harnessing big data to inform Precision Health, but also in the applications that deliver our health services to patients, wherever they are in the country.

Personal history

So I've talked a bit this morning about our history in health innovation, and I've shared a bit of what’s around the corner.

There's one more story I'd like to share before I weigh up our chances at this moonshot of becoming the world's healthiest nation. I want to tell you about why it's important to me.

I was an intern at CSIRO nearly 30 years ago, and it was through seeing the deep impact of the research done at CSIRO that I realised the power of science to transform lives. So when I finished my PhD, I tried my hand at commercialising some of my research to generate that kind of impact, and spent 26 years doing it in Silicon Valley.

The invention that got me hooked on founding companies was the world's first solid-state green laser to cure blindness in diabetics, and as we grew, we provided a range of lasers to ophthalmologists and later dermatologists.

A few years later, I was woken in the middle of the night by my eight-year-old daughter saying, "Daddy, there's something wrong".

I turned on the light to see her face covered in blood from a small vessel in her nose, and when the bleeding didn't stop easily, we soon discovered it was connected to the ophthalmic artery – which I only remember because we founded an ophthalmic company. It's the first branch of the carotid artery, so it's a high pressure bleed to have, and for a while it was rupturing every second day with disastrous results.

Two weeks later, we got rushed into a surgeon's lab in San Francisco and, using guess whose laser, he cauterised the offending vessel and healed the wound. As the surgeon finished the treatment, my daughter said, "I'm lucky my daddy is a doctor," and he said, "no, you're lucky he's an entrepreneur, and I'm a doctor."

As residents of the US at the time, she was also lucky her family had health insurance.

National missions

CSIRO had an epiphany a few years ago, and we responded by bringing together a really broad cross-section of our experts to tackle today's health challenges. Today I'd like you to have the same epiphany in realising that everything is connected.

  • Our environment, water, plants, animals and humans – we used to consider all of these elements separately, but our future is the intersection of all of them into a 'One Health' approach.
  • The 'One Health' model means we now understand that the solutions won't come from one single discipline or institution. The challenges are complex, and need innovative new approaches. But we know innovation happens at the intersection of people and perspectives. Each of the recent breakthroughs I described today came from multiple fields of science, from digital, to food and nutrition, to agriculture, to biosecurity, and others.
  • At CSIRO, our innovation catalyst strategy is all about bringing the best and brightest together, from every field necessary, to use the best science to create real world solutions to Australia's national challenges. At CSIRO, we are all about delivering the moonshots.

This is why I think Australia's moonshot to become the healthiest nation in the world is well within our reach.

Because in Australia, we believe you shouldn't have to be lucky to access the right doctor and the right treatment.

We believe that not only should kids be able to access lasers to cure their eyes, but they should be growing up to invent the next generation of innovation for their children, right here in Australia.

When Bill Ferris and the Innovation and Science Australia team released their 2030 Report a few months ago, they called for Australia to rally around a national mission like becoming the healthiest nation in the world. They proposed it not just because we would all be healthier, but because it inspires the next generation of health innovators.

100 years ago, Australians trusted CSIRO to improve their fruit for export and rid their land of invasive pests. Over the years, we've delivered treatments for the flu and diets for total wellbeing. And tomorrow, we'll deliver personalised healthcare, down to the gene, and out to the furthest reaches of this wide brown land.

A sustainable model for health, one that can make us the healthiest nation in the world, can't just be about treatment, we have to get ahead with prevention.

CSIRO has a long and proud history of being an innovation catalyst: partnering with government, industry, the research sector, and the community to deliver moonshots across any number of endeavours, and health is no different.

As JFK said, we choose to go to the moon:

"not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win".

Australia has a great advantage in this moonshot to become the healthiest nation in the world, because we recognise that health today means health across the whole system.

At CSIRO, it's in our DNA not just to deliver the national missions, but to deliver national benefit and improve the life of every single Australian. That's the real moonshot, no one left behind.

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